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Monday, 27 June 2016 10:14

Refugee Week – celebration or lamentation?

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refugees forever 150Along with the celebrations is the question we cannot ignore: what is to happen to the 2000 people locked in a limbo of despair on Manus Island and Nauru, asks Loreto Sister Libby Rogerson.

A poignant post script to the recent announcement that the five refugees sent from Manus Island to Cambodia had opted, despite fear of persecution, to return to their home countries was the reference to the one remaining refugee – a Rohingya from Myanmar. Poignant because this lone man epitomises so much of what it is to be a refugee – stateless, poor and with no place to go. Rohingyas, a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, are persecuted for their Islamic religion, prevented from working, required to have government permission for almost every aspect of their lives, including marriage, and denied the most basic of human rights. Although they have lived in Myanmar for generations the government wants to send them “back” to Thailand, where their ancestors came from and Thailand won’t have them.

With Courage Let Us All Combine, a line from Australia’s national anthem, is this year’s Refugee Week theme. The rhetoric associated with the build-up to the election – keep our borders safe, turn back the boats, save our jobs and have regard to the cost of those who are illiterate, does not easily lead to “combining” but certainly requires courage on the part of asylum seekers and refugees. It is a week when we are invited to celebrate diversity, richness of culture and the achievements of refugees. Most Australians, delighting in the array of different foods, in the exoticism of ethnic shopping areas and the colourful cultural traditions of the more than 100 nationalities which grace our shores, have no difficulty in celebrating. But along with the celebrations is the question we cannot ignore: what is to happen to the 2000 people locked in a limbo of despair on Manus Island and Nauru? It is inconceivable that a prosperous country with a stable democracy and a well-developed rule of law continues to countenance the incarceration of men, women and children for years and years on impoverished off-shore islands with no prospect of freedom. Something has to give. Australians cannot remain impervious to the lip sewing, the poison taking, the self-immolating of desperate people driven mad by a toxic mix of uncertainty, mental illness, fear and boredom.

The issue is not simple and well-meaning but simplistic responses to the issue may well do more harm than good. But until Australia and the countries in the region sit down with UNHCR and map out a regional response to people-smuggling and the settlement of refugees there can be no solution. Until, with courage, the regional nations, “all combine” there will be no celebrating the contribution refugees have made and continue to make to Australia.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of the Loreto Networker, the newsletter of the Loreto Sisters of Australia and Southeast Asia.